Since starting the Men’s Counseling Center of Northern Michigan, I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to meet and share information with my peers in the community. I recently gave a presentation at the monthly meeting of the Women’s Therapists Network in Petoskey, Michigan. I chose to talk about men’s shame, and, in the process, took a look at Brene Brown’s book, Men, Women and Worthiness. Her tone is invitingly conversational, and her comments both support and advance the contention that shame is the core issue for many men.
Brown defines shame as the sense that “There’s something fundamentally wrong with me, that I’m unworthy of love.” She points out that shame decimates self-esteem, and, if deep enough, shame turns into self-contempt. Here’s my personal example of shame, typical of the shaming experiences most men endure.
One day, a long time ago, I went to Sam’s Club to get groceries and a few other things. On my way in, I passed the tire center, and I thought to myself, “Geez, I need some new tires.” There were these two big burly guys behind the counter. I stood there for a while until finally one of them turned his attention to me. I said, “I think I need some new tires.” He said, “So what size does your car take?” My mind went blank; I didn’t have the slightest idea what size fit my car. I said, “I don’t know.” The guys looked at each other and rolled their eyes. Then the larger of the two said, “So, do you know what kind of car you have?” I died a little bit that day. My conclusion: clearly a real man knows the tire size of his car, and I must not be man enough.
I know I’m not alone. Men are relentlessly shamed. Alongside major shaming events in their lives, I believe it’s the day-to-day small humiliations that most undermine men’s self-esteem.
- When they can’t remember the names of guys on their local NFL, NBA, MLB teams
- When they don’t have a good sense of direction
- When they can’t describe what’s wrong with their car or computer
- When they get nervous in public speaking
- When they don’t get a joke
- When they’re pee-shy and other guys notice it (what the hell is taking you so long?)
- When they have premature ejaculation or erectile dysfunction
- When, in the presence of other men, they feel dominated by women.
Fear of Shame
When I lived in Grand Rapids, I was in a supervision group and, before the session started, we were talking about the dark feelings of hurt, fear, and shame. Kirk Brink, the group supervisor, a great therapist and truly wise man, came in and joined our conversation. He said, “You know, first, it’s really not hurt, fear, and shame; hurt doesn’t go so deep; it doesn’t sear like fear or shame. And second, it’s really not fear and shame, it’s fear of shame.”
So, many men not only have been regularly shamed, but they live in the incessant anxiety that they’ll be further shamed. They live in fear of embarrassment, intimidation, humiliation. They are watchful, guarded, vigilant, they keep their distance, they act much more confident than they really are to avoid further shame. When they are shamed, they act out in their own bullying, abuse, and violence to deal with it or avoid it.
Men go through life as if they’re on patrol in a war zone, and they never know when they might get ambushed. Because they’re so frequently ridiculed and mocked and bullied in their daily lives, they come to see the world as a deeply unsafe place. Brene Brown points out that, over their lifetimes, when men are repeatedly shamed they either get pissed off or they shut down, and sooner or later, some way, some how, some time, many of them explode.
I believe that it’s helpful to confront men with their attitudes and behavior, teach them to avoid power and control tactics, and exhort them to respect women. And, although psycho-educational groups – otherwise known as cognitive-behavioral therapy – are a courageous and appropriate first step, they don’t go far enough. Men don’t make much progress in these settings because they aren’t being treated for the underlying issues, one of which is shame.
Brown’s goal is to help people develop shame resilience: identifying triggers, practicing critical awareness, sharing stories of shame, and speaking about shame events. She sees that the empathy from others is the primary antidote to shame. The bottom line, as many of us know already, is that it’s the vulnerability of self-disclosure that heals shame. I’ve told the story of the tire guys on many occasions, and, every time, it reduces my sense of shame and makes my view of the incident more balanced—it’s not only about me and my shame, but also about the shame that propels the tire guys to put down other guys to boost their own poor egos.
My colleague, Randy Flood, and I have seen men effectively recognize their shame in individual counseling; they can be vulnerable in places like Alcoholics Anonymous, maybe Bible study, but it’s in men’s experiential therapy groups that men can transform themselves from shame to self-respect.
In our groups, ordinary guys do extraordinary things.
- Dwayne has been rightfully concerned about the careless practices at work that endanger people’s lives but eventually he’s become paralyzed with shame because his superiors have convinced him he’s the problem. Once he speaks of his shame, some of his humiliation falls away.
- Sal has been “going crazy” because he’s discovered that his wife is having an affair; he begins to quiet himself in group as he recognizes that he’s not the only man who’s been cuckolded, and, anyway, maybe it’s best that the relationship end.
- Dustin gets tears in his eyes when he worries that he’ll fall apart and won’t be able to speak the words when he proposes to his girlfriend, that he won’t do it right. When he speaks of it to the group, the other guys assure him that she’ll love him all the more for his gushiness, and his worries disappear.
Way back in the early nineteenth century, Arthur Schopenhauer observed that “The closing years of life are like the end of a masquerade party when the masks are dropped.” Whether you’re a man who’s taking a look at our site, a therapist who works with men and helps men recognize and recover from their shame, let’s hope that we lay down our masks before the end of life. Let us learn now to admit, proclaim, even celebrate our shame. Let us heal.